Friday, April 16, 2010

How do American Museums...? Well, It Depends...

Yesterday I spent a lively session with scientists (researchers and scholars) from the National Ethnographic Institute here in Kyiv.   I'd been asked just to speak about museums in the States, a pretty broad topic and so decided to give a very brief overview,  highlight some trends I thought were interesting (transparency, participation, etc) and then open it up to questions.  The ethnographers had a broad range of questions including:
  • How are museums organized in terms of staff structure?
  • What is the path to becoming a director?
  • Is there a single national training school for the museum profession?
  • How are collections built?
  • What's the average salary of a museum worker?
  • How is repatriation of objects dealt with?
  • Is theft, internally and externally, an issue and how is it dealt with?
  • Where, in the US, is the ethnographic history of the US presented?
  • What are outdoor museums like and what do people do at them?
And in answering them, I realized that my answers often began with, "It depends."   It's a huge surprise to museum workers here that 90% of museums in the US are non-governmental ones,  governed by volunteer boards of directors and that as a result,  each museum makes its own decision (with of course, various legal distinctions on certain issues)  about how to organize itself, what to pay its staff, how to organize itself and all those other issues.

One of the legacies of the Soviet Union is what I think of as a "one size fits all" approach.  A single school to train museum workers?  Not likely in the US.   The Soviet legacy also includes a substantial  lack of clarity about legal issues regarding museums and a system that still does not encourage or reward innovation or achievement.   That, combined with Ukraine's high ranking on Transparency International's list of most corrupt nations and ongoing lack of funding means that change will come slowly here.   But I was heartened by the desire of these colleagues to learn more about American museums, both in terms of connecting with visitors and internal structure.

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